Sometimes children are struggling more than we realize. Life’s challenges can not only trigger stress and anxiety, but also depression in our kids. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, more than 1 in 7 teens experience depression each year and about 5 percent of children 13 to 18 years old have had episodes of severe depression. Sadly, depression can lead to suicide, which is the third leading cause of death in young people between the ages of 10 and 24.
Fortunately, once recognized and treated properly, children can manage and even overcome their feelings of depression and go on to live happy, successful lives.
What Is Depression?
Depression is a mental illness that affects the way we think, feel, and act. It entails feelings of sadness, irritability, loss of interest in activities, hopelessness, and worthlessness. In extreme cases, it can even lead to thoughts of suicide. Prolonged symptoms can interfere with social activities, interests, schoolwork, sleep, eating habits, and family life. As Cleveland Clinic explains, “Childhood depression is different from the normal ‘blues’ and everyday emotions that occur as a child develops.”
What causes depression in children? Children under stress; who experience loss and grief; who have attentional, learning, behavioral, or anxiety disorders; or have a family history are at a higher risk for depression. Social media and cyberbullying are also associated with an increased risk of depression.
Although depression can occur in young children, it is much more common in adolescents. Depression before puberty occurs equally in boys and girls, but after puberty it is more common in girls.
Signs of Depression In Children
Depression in children and teens can sometimes be overlooked when their moodiness is disregarded as just normal emotional reactions as they go through growth periods in their lives, such as puberty. However, depression is not simply a passing mood that will go away. According to the Cleveland Clinic, children with depression may present their own unique set of symptoms, and these symptoms can come and go at different times.
Look for one or more of these signs and symptoms of depression in your child:
- Irritability, anger, or being “on edge”
- Persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Feelings of worthlessness, low-self esteem, or guilt
- Withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Increased sensitivity to rejection or criticism
- Changes in appetite (either increased or decreased)
- Changes in sleep (sleeplessness or too much sleep)
- Crying or temper tantrums
- Difficulty concentrating and focusing
- Fatigue and low energy
- Physical complaints (such as stomach aches, headaches) that do not respond to treatment
- Reduced ability to function during activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
- Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
- Thoughts or talk of death, suicide, or self-destructive behavior
Getting Your Child Help
If one or more of these symptoms persist, please seek professional help for your child. Depression is a treatable medical illness if addressed. Don’t worry about the stigma or embarrassment associated with depression. Getting your children the help they need can dramatically improve their life—and even save their life.
Your first step can be to speak with your child’s pediatrician or to go directly to a mental health professional such as a pediatric psychiatrist who specializes in depression. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for depressed children. Treatment can include both individual and family therapy, and sometimes medication. One of the most successful types of therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on the patient replacing negative thoughts with more realistic, positive ones.
Treatment may also include the use of antidepressant medication. The two FDA-approved medications for treating depression are fluoxetine (Prozac®) for ages 8 and older and escitalopram (Lexapro®) for ages 12 and older. Antidepressants must be used with caution, however, as some individuals may have no improvement or feel worse. It’s important to work with a psychiatrist who can prescribe and track any medication being taken.
Finally, the psychiatrist may recommend a treatment plan that includes working with your child’s school and/or having your child attend a peer support group. Be sure that the professional you are working with provides a specialized treatment plan for your child and discusses with you and your child the risks and benefits of each treatment option.
And if at any time you feel that your child needs immediate assistance, please call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
How have you addressed your child’s depression?